free html hit counter John Battelle's Search Blog | Page 26 of 548 | Thoughts on the intersection of search, media, technology, and more.

Direct Mail Ain’t Dead, Says Facebook

By - April 19, 2012

I’m a bit behind on my snail mail, so to procrastinate from writing anything useful on the book, I went through a pile that’s accumulated over the past week. Perhaps the most interesting piece of mail came from a very familiar brand: Facebook.

The letter had all the trappings of direct mail – a presorted postage mark, impersonal address label, etc. I almost tossed it, but then I thought, why is Facebook using snail mail to message to me? I guess Facebook can’t grow using only its own platform to market its wares. After all, Google is now a major brand advertiser, and probably does direct mail as well. It’s kind of interesting that Facebook is now marketing in new ways….so open it I did.

The one page letter was an offer designed for folks who run “agencies.” I don’t run one, but I do manage a business, registered in the State of California, through which I manage my writing and speaking work. Facebook clearly bought some list, somewhere, that had my name on it (oh, the irony – don’t they already have this information?). The offer was for Facebook’s advertising products – I could offer a free $100 credit to all my clients if I signed up for Facebook advertising myself. I’d have to qualify as an agency, and I’m pretty sure I don’t. So despite my desire to offer all of you, my reading “clients,” $100 in free Facebook ads, I’m afraid I can’t. But I can post (a bad photo of) the letter, in case you’re interested. The front is the offer, and the back is a case study of a company (Victory Motorcycles) that’s had success with Facebook’s platform. For the record, if nothing else.

Front:

Back:

 

 

  • Content Marquee

A Coachella “Fail-ble”: Do We Hold Spectrum in Common?

By - April 18, 2012

Neon Indian at Coachella last weekend.

 

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking two days off the grid and heading to a music festival called Coachella. Now, when I say “off the grid,” I mean time away from my normal work life (yes, I tend to work a bit on the weekends), and my normal family life (I usually reserve the balance of weekends for family, this was the first couple of days “alone” I’ve had in more than a year.)

What I most certainly did not want to be was off the information grid – the data lifeline that all of us so presumptively leverage through our digital devices. But for the entire time I was at the festival, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – to me, and to most of the 85,000 or so other people trying to use their smartphones while at the show.

I’m not writing this post to blame AT&T (my carrier), or Verizon, or the producers of Coachella, though each have some part to play in the failure that occurred last weekend (and most likely will occur again this weekend, when Coachella produces its second of two festival weekends). Rather, I’m deeply interested in how this story came about, why it matters, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

First, let’s set some assumptions. When tens of thousands of young people (the average age of a Coachella fan is in the mid to low 20s) gather in any one place in the United States, it’s a safe bet these things are true:

– Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their possession.

– Nearly everyone plans on using that smartphone to connect with friends at the show, as well as to record, share, and amplify the experience they are having while at the event.

– Nearly everyone knows that service at large events is awful, yet they hope their phone will work, at least some of the time. Perhaps a cash-rich sponsor will pay to bring in extra bandwidth, or maybe the promoter will spring for it out of the profit from ticket sales. Regardless, they expect some service delays, and plan on using low-bandwidth texting services more than they’d like to.

– Nearly everyone leaves a show like Coachella unhappy with their service provider, and unable to truly express themselves in ways they wished they could. Those ways might include, in no particular order: Communicating with friends so as to meet up (“See you at the Outdoor stage, right side middle, for Grace Potter!”), tweeting or Facebooking a message to followers (“Neon Indian is killing it right now!”), checking in on Foursquare or any other location service so as to gain value in a social game (or in my case, to create digital breadcrumbs to remind me who I was once in hit dotage), uploading photos to any number of social photo services like Instagram, or using new, music-specific apps like TastemakerX on a whim (“I’d like to buy 100 shares of Yuck, those guys just blew me away!”). Oh, and it’d be nice to make a phone call home if you need to.

But for the most part, I and all my friends were unable to do any of these things at Coachella last weekend, at least not in real time. I felt as if I was drinking from a very thin, very clogged cocktail straw. Data service was simply non existent onsite. Texts came in, but more often than not they were timeshifted: I’d get ten texts delivered some 20 minutes after they were sent. And phone service was about as good as it is on Sand Hill Road – spotty, prone to drops, and often just not available. I did manage to get some data service while at the show, but that was because I found a press tent and logged onto the local wifi network there, or I “tricked” my phone into thinking it was logging onto the network for the first time (by turning “airplane mode” off and on over and over again).

This all left me wondering – what if? What if there was an open pipe, both up and down, that could handle all that traffic? What if everyone who came to the show knew that pipe would be open, and work? What kind of value would have been created had that been the case? How much more data would have populated the world, how much richer would literally millions of people’s lives been for seeing the joyful expressions of their friends as they engaged in a wonderful experience? How much more learning might have countless startups gathered, had they been able to truly capture the real time intentions of their customers at such an event?

In short, how much have we lost as a society because we’ve failed to solve our own bandwidth problems?

I know, it’s just a rock festival, and jeez Battelle, shut off your phone and just dance, right? OK, I get that, I trust me, I did dance, a lot. But I also like to take a minute here or there to connect to the people I love, or who follow me, and share with them my passions and my excitement. We are becoming a digital society, to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And with very few exceptions, it was just not possible to intermingle the digital and the physical at Coachella. (I did hear reports that folks with Verizon were having better luck, but that probably because there were fewer Verizon iPhones than those with AT&T. And think about that language – “luck”?!).

Way back in 2008, when the iPhone was new and Instagram was a gleam in Kevin Systrom’s eye, I was involved in creating a service called CrowdFire. It was a way for fans at a festival (the first was Outside Lands) to share photos, tweets, and texts in a location and event specific way. I’ve always rued our decision to not spin CrowdFire out as a separate company, but regardless, my main memory of the service was how crippled it was due to bandwidth failure. It was actually better than Coachella, but not by much. So in four years, we’ve managed to go backwards when it comes to this problem.

Of course, the amount of data we’re using has exploded, so credit to the carriers for doing their best to keep up. But can they get to the promised land? I wonder, at least under the current system of economic incentives we’ve adopted in the United States. Sure, there will always be traffic jams, but have we really thought through the best approach to how we execute “the Internet in the sky?”

Put another way, do we not hold the ability to share who we are, our very digital reflections, as a commons to which all of us should have equal access?

As I was driving to the festival last Saturday, I engaged in a conversation with one of my fellow passengers about this subject. What do we, as a society, hold in commons, and where do digital services fit in, if at all?

Well, we were driving to Coachella on city roads, held in commons through municipalities, for one. And we then got on Interstate 10 for a few miles, which is held in commons by federal agencies in conjunction with local governments. So it’s pretty clear we have, as a society, made the decision that the infrastructure for the transport of atoms – whether they be cars and the humans in them, or trucks and the commercial goods within them – is held in a public commons.Sure, we hit some traffic, but it wasn’t that bad, and there were ways to route around it.

What else do we hold in a commons? We ticked off the list of stuff upon we depend – the transportation of water and power to our homes and our businesses, for example. Those certainly are (mostly) held in the public commons as well.

So it’s pretty clear that over the course of time, we’ve decided that when it comes to moving ourselves around, and making sure we have power and water, we’re OK with the government managing the infrastructure. But what of bits? What of “ourselves” as expressed digitally?

For the “hardwired” Internet – the place that gave us the Web, Google, Facebook, et al, we built upon what was arguably a publicly common infrastructure. Thanks to government and social normative regulation, the hard-wired Internet was architected to be open to all, with a commercial imperative that insured bandwidth issues were addressed in a reasonable fashion (Cisco, Comcast, etc.).

But with wireless, we’ve taken what is a public asset – radio spectrum – and we’ve licensed it to private companies under a thicket of regulatory oversight. And without laying blame – there’s probably plenty of it to go around – we’ve proceeded to make a mess of it. What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure. Is it a market failure – which usual preceeds government action? I’m not sure that’s the case. But it’s a fail, nevertheless. I’d like to get smarter on this issue, even though the prospect of it makes my head hurt.

As I wrote yesterday, I recently spent some time in Washington DC, and sat down with the Obama administration’s point person on that question, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. As I expected, the issue of spectrum allocation is extraordinarily complicated, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a way out of the “Coachella Fail-ble” anytime soon. But there is hope. Technological disruption is one way – watch the “white spaces,” for instance. And in a world where marketing claims to be “the fastest” spur customer switching, our carriers are madly scrambling to upgrade their networks. Yet in the US, wireless speeds are far below those of countries in Europe and Asia.

I plan on finding out more as I report, but I may as well ask you, my smarter readers: Why is this the case? And does it have anything to do with what those other countries consider to be held in “digital commons”?

I’ll readily admit I’m simply a journeyman asking questions here, not a firebrand looking to lay blame. I understand this is a complicated topic, but it’s one for which I’d love your input and guidance.

What Doesn’t the Valley Understand About Washington?

By - April 17, 2012

A few weeks ago I ventured to our nation’s capital to steep in its culture a bit, and get some first hand reporting done for the book. I met with about a dozen or so folks, including several scholars, the heads of the FCC and FTC, and senior folks in the Departments of Commerce and State. I also spoke to a lobbyist from the Internet industry, as well as people from various “think tanks” that populate the city. It was my first such trip, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Each of the conversations was specific to the person I was interviewing, but I did employ one device to tie them together – I asked each person the same set of questions toward the end of the conversation. And as I was on the plane home, I wrote myself a little reminder to post about the most interesting set of answers I got, which was to this simple question: What doesn’t the Valley understand about Washington?

It’s not a secret that the Valley, as a whole, has an ambivalent attitude toward DC. Until recently, the prevailing philosophy has trended libertarian – just stay out of the way, please, and let us do what we do best. Just about every startup CEO I’ve ever known – including myself – ignores Washington in the early years of a company’s lifecycle. Government is treated like plumbing – it’s dirty, it costs too much, it’s preferably someone else’s job, and it’s ignored until it stops working the way we want it to.

SOPA and PIPA is the classic example of the plumbing going out – and the Internet’s response to it was the topic of much of my conversations last month. Sure, “we” managed to stop some stupid legislation from passing, but the fact is, we almost missed it, and Lord knows what else we’re missing due to our refusal to truly engage with the instrument of our shared governance.

To be fair, in the past few years a number of major Internet companies have gotten very serious about joining the conversation in DC – Google is perhaps the most serious of them all (I’m not counting Micrsoft, which got pretty serious back in 1997 when it lost an antitrust suit). Now, one can argue that like Microsoft before it, Google’s seriousness is due to how interested Washington has become in Google, but regardless, it was interesting to hear from source after source how they respected Google for at least fully staffing a presence in DC.

Other large Internet companies also have offices in Washington, but from what I hear, they are not that effective beyond very narrow areas of interest. Two of the largest e-commerce companies in the world have a sum total of eight people in DC, I was told by a well-placed source. Eight people can’t get much done when you’re dealing with regulatory frameworks around fraud, intellectual property, international trade, infrastructure and spectrum policy, and countless other areas of regulation that matter to the Internet.

In short, and perhaps predictably, nearly everyone I spoke to in Washington told me that the Valley’s number one issue was its lack of engagement with the government. But the answers were far more varied and interesting than that simple statement. Here they are, without attribution, as most of my conversations were on background pending clearance of actual quotes for the book:

– The Valley doesn’t understand the threat that comes from Washington. Put another way, our industry figures it out too late. The Valley doesn’t understand how much skin it already has in the game. “When things are bent in the right direction here, it can be a really good thing,” one highly placed government source told me. Washington is “dismissed, and when it’s dismissed you neither realize the upside nor mitigate the downside.”

– When the Valley does engage, it’s too lightly, and too predictably. Larger Valley companies get an office on K Street (where the lobbyists live) and hire an ex-Congressperson to lobby on that company’s core issues. But “that’s not where the magic is,” one source told me. The real magic is for companies to use their own platforms to engage with their customers in authentic conversations that get the attention of lawmakers. This happened – albeit very late – with SOPA/PIPA, and it got everyone’s attention in Washington. Imagine if this was an ongoing conversation, and not a one-off “Chicken Little” scenario?  Counter to what many believe about Washington, where money and lobbying connections are presumed to always win the day, “Fact-based arguments matter, a lot,” one senior policymaker told me. “Fact-based debates occur here, every day. If you take yourself out of that conversation, it’s like going into litigation without a lawyer.” Internet companies are uniquely positioned to change the approach to how lawmakers “hear” their constituents, but have done very little to actually leverage that fact.

– The Valley is too obsessed with the issue of privacy, one scholar told me. Instead, it should look to regulations around whether or not harm is being done to consumers. This was an interesting insight – and perhaps a way to think about protecting our data and our identities. There are already a thicket of regulations and law around keeping consumers safe from the harmful effects of business practices. Perhaps we are paying attention to the wrong thing, this scholar suggested.

– The Valley assumes that bad legislation will be rooted out and defeated in the same way that SOPA and PIPA were. But that’s a faulty assumption. “The Valley is techno-deterministic, and presumes ‘we can engineer around it,'” one scholar told me. “They don’t realize they’ve already been blinkered – a subset of possible new technological possibilities has already been removed that they are not even aware of.” One example of this is the recent “white spaces” spectrum allocation, which while promising avenues of new market opportunity, was severely retarded by forces in Washington far more powerful than the Internet industry (more on this in another post).

– The framework of “us vs. them” is unproductive and produces poor results. The prevailing mentality in the valley, one well-connected scholar told me, is the “heroic techie versus the wicked regulator…Rather than just having libertarian abstractions about regulations versus freedom,” this source continued,  “it’s important to realize that in every single debate there are… regulations that strike better or worse balances between competing values. You just have to engage enough to defend the good ones.”

Put another way, as another senior government official told me, “The Valley doesn’t understand there are good and decent people here who really want to get things done.”

If I were to sum up the message from all my conversations in Washington, it’d be this: We’re here because as a society, we decided we needed people to help manage values we hold in common. Increasingly, the Internet is how we express those values. So stop ignoring us and hoping we’ll go away, and start engaging with us more. Decidedly better results will occur if you do.

I don’t pretend that one trip to DC makes me an expert on the subject (it surely does not), but I left DC energized and wanting to engage more than I have in the past. I hope you’ll feel the same.

(image: traveldk.com)

On Larry Page’s Letter: Super Amazing Great Tremendous!

By - April 09, 2012

(I promised a bit more color commentary on Larry Page’s 3500-word missive posted last week, and after reading it over a few more times, it seems worth the time to keep that promise. I wrote this last weekend, but am on vacation, so just posting it now…)

It’s not often you get a document such as this to analyze – the last time I can recall is Google’s feisty 2004 letter to shareholders written on the eve of its IPO.

Well, eight years in, the feisty has taken a back seat to the practical, the explicative, and the … nice! The first thing I noticed were the exclamation points – Larry uses one in the second sentence, then keeps on exclaiming – 11 times, in fact. Now, I don’t know Larry Page very well, but he just doesn’t seem the type to use exclamation points. Seeing so many of them felt….off. Also, the letter had a very “softer side of Sears” feel to it, the language itself was rounded, not quite defensive (as it might have been given the news lately), but also not pointed.

Clearly, this was a new Larry – Larry in a sweater vest, so to speak. As a lover of language, I wanted to see if there were any interesting patterns, so for ease of analysis, I decided to cut and paste it into a Word doc (sorry, Google Docs, old habits die hard. Something that the Bing team knows well…).

Larry uses variations of the word “love” eight times in his post. Beautiful is used three times. “Great” gets a workout: it’s used 14 times. “Excited about” gets five. “You can,” 10, “We have,” 12. “Search” gets 22 mentions, “Google,” 32, “people,” 28.  “Users” gets 18 – I’ve always hated that word. Android is mentioned 13 times, though it doesn’t seem to be nearly as important in the document as Google+, which merits 9 mentions, slightly lower than “revenue,” which comes in at 10.

But what really strikes me is how, well, nice the language is. So many nice words – beautiful, share, improve, healthy, better, like, important, great, well, tremendous, believe, enable, best – all of these words are used at least three times, often more than ten.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to be so darn nice, it just doesn’t feel like it’s truly Page’s voice. It feels more written by committee. It lacks the zest and attitude of Page’s 2004 missive – but then again, Google has a lot more on its plate now, and a lot more to lose.

Then again, there are some zingers in there, even if they are wearing sweaters. Page makes a point of showing how the Android and YouTube acquisitions worked out in the end, a veiled (or vested?!) defense of Google’s Motorola deal. And while the word “evil” is only used once, I find it very, very interesting it was used at all. For a while, it seemed Google was backing off its unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil.” But in the letter, up it pops, though again, with its shoulders rounded: “We have always believed that it’s possible to make money without being evil,” Page writes. Then he goes into an anecdote about why revenue is necessary, starring his tragic hero Nikola Tesla.

Oddly, for a letter that is reputedly written for investors, Page never mentions Google’s stock price, which hasn’t exactly beaten the Nasdaq lately, but it hasn’t lagged, either.

In the end, the letter is a long, rambling walk through a familiar suburb. Nice, but…well, just that, nice. Maybe I was hoping that Page would come out swinging, defending Google against all the recent slings and arrows, pointedly explaining why it makes sense to combine privacy policies, integrate Google+ into search, and buy Motorola. But that’s clearly not his (public) style. I’m guessing in private, there’s a bit more fire in his pen.

Facebook Buys Instagram, Checks Off A Swath of 2012 Predictions In One Move

By -

Waaaay back in January, I rolled out my annual predictions. Thanks to our pals at Facebook, a few of them are now pretty much in the bag. I may have to start doing these things monthly, given the pace of our industry.

Prediction #5 was that it’d be a big year for Internet M&A. I further singled out Instagram as a company that would likely be bought, and figured there’d be a battle between Twitter, Apple, Facebook, and Google for the prize. Facebook won, with a billion dollar price tag. That checks box number seven, which predicted, among other things, that Facebook would make a billion dollar acquisition. FWIW, I also predicted Google would have a rough year (so far, seems that way) and that a heads up display would emerge (Google did that as well).

Facebook says it’s going to leave Instagram alone for the most part, but I don’t expect that to last that long. The most interesting part of the announcement for me was Zuckerberg’s promise to “learn” from Instagram’s integration with other social services. I wonder if that will hold. In any case, congrats to the team at Instagram, who presented just last month at our Signal SF event. Who might be next? Perhaps they’re presenting at our event next month in NYC…

Larry Page Makes His Case

By - April 05, 2012

Given the headlines, questions, and legal actions Google has faced recently, many folks, including myself, have been wondering when Google’s CEO Larry Page would take a more public stance in outlining his vision for the company.

Well, today marks a shift of sorts, with the publication of a lenthy blog post from Larry titled, quite uninterestingly, 2012 Update from the CEO.

I’ve spent the past two days at Amazon and Microsoft, two Google competitors (and partners), and am just wrapping up a last meeting. I hope to read Page’s post closely and give you some analysis as soon as I can. Meanwhile, a few top line thoughts and points:

– Page pushes Google+ as a success, citing more than 100 million users, but still doesn’t address the question of whether the service is truly being used organically, rather than as a byproduct of interactions with other Google products. I’m not sure it matters, but it’s a question many have raised. He also doesn’t address, directly, the tempest over the integration of G+ into search.

– Page also does not directly address the issue of FTC privacy investigations into the company, not surprising, given any company’s response to these investigations is usually “no comment.” However, Google might have explained with a bit more gusto the reasons for its recent changes.

– Page tosses out another big number, this one around Android: 850K activations a day. Take that, Apple!

– Page uses the words “love” and “beauty” – which I find both refreshing and odd.

– Page also talks about making big bets, focusing on fewer products, and how it’s OK to not be exactly sure how big bets are going to make money. This is a topic where Google has a ton of experience, to be sure.

More when I get out of my last meeting….

On The Future of The Web 2 Summit

By - April 04, 2012

By around this time of year, most of you are used to hearing about this year’s Web 2 Summit theme, its initial lineup of speakers, and any other related goings on, like our annual VIP dinners or perhaps some crazy map I’ve dreamt up. It’s become a familiar ritual in early spring, and many of you have been asking what’s up with this year’s event, in particular given the success of both last year’s theme (The Data Frame) and its amazing lineup of speakers and attendees.

Truth is, we’re not going to do the Web 2 Summit this year, and I’m writing this post to explain why. For the most part, it has to do with my book, the subject of which was outlined in my previous post. As the person who focuses on the core product – the programming on the stage – I just could not pull off both writing a book and creating a pitch-perfect onstage program. It takes months and months of hard work to execute a conference like Web 2 (and not just by me). My partners at O’Reilly and UBM TechWeb are full to the brink with other conferences, and after months of discussions about how we might route around this problem, we all agreed there really wasn’t a way to do it. It’s not fun being the guy who stops the party, but in this case, I have to step up and take responsibility.

That’s not to say we won’t be back – we’re keeping our options open there. For now, the Web 2 Summit is on hiatus. Each of the partners will continue to produce conferences (I am doing five for FM this year alone, and have ideas about others in the works). We’re just letting the Web 2 Summit lay fallow for a year.

I want to note that the partnership the three of us have enjoyed these past eight years has been nothing short of extraordinary. It’s quite unusual for a three-way venture to work, much less thrive as Web 2 Summit has. I am deeply grateful to Tim O’Reilly, Tony Uphoff, and their teams. I also want to note that this decision has nothing to do with any debate or disagreement between us – it’s really due to my desire to focus my time on FM and my new book.

Taking this year off will give all of us a chance to reflect on what we’ve done, consider our options going forward, and then take action. Expect to hear from us again in the next few months, and thanks for being part of the Web 2 Summit community.

 

The Conversational Marketing Summit, Seventh Edition: A Searchblog (Deep) Discount

By - April 03, 2012

Each year at Internet Week in New York, I curate a conference on media and marketing called the CM Summit (video from last year above). Past speakers have included Dick Costolo, CEO Twitter, Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook, John Hayes, CMO American Express, Laura Desmond CEO Starcom Mediavest Group, will.i.am, and many, many more. We’re on the seventh edition of the CM Summit, and it’s only getting better. (By comparison, I’ve done eight Web 2 Summits – so this is the second longest running conference I’ve ever curated).

Speakers at this year’s event, slated for May 14-15, include the legendary Valley investor Ron Conway, the always fascinating founder of Huffington Post Arianna Huffington, and chiefs of marketing for Coca Cola, Nokia, Mastercard, and many, many others. We’ve got startup founders who are changing the game in media, agency chiefs who oversee hundreds of millions in spending, and publishers who are redefining our understanding of content. (And a few surprises yet to come…). For more, head over to the ever-evolving speaker page here.

But that’s not why I’m posting this notice. Registration is now open for the CM Summit, and the conference has sold out every single year of its existence. The age-old marketing tactic known as the “early bird registration discount” ends in a week and a half, on April 13. And my conference manager has offered all Searchblog readers a discount on top of the early bird – in essence, if you register before April 13, you’ll get the $1399 ticket for just $899. Just hit this link, and use the code “JBATEB1″. It’ll work till next Friday…hope to see you there!

If-Then and Antiquities of the Future

By -

Over the past few months I’ve been developing a framework for the book I’ve been working on, and while I’ve been pretty quiet about the work, it’s time to lay it out and get some responses from you, the folks I most trust with keeping me on track.

I’ll admit the idea of putting all this out here makes me nervous – I’ve only discussed this with a few dozen folks, and now I’m going public with what I’ll admit is an unbaked cake. Anyone can criticize it now, (or, I suppose, steal it), but then again, I did the very same thing with the core idea in my last book (The Database of Intentions, back in 2003), and that worked out just fine.

So here we go. The original promise of my next book is pretty simple: I’m trying to paint a picture of the kind of digital world we’ll likely live in one generation from now, based on a survey of where we are presently as a digital society. In a way, it’s a continuation and expansion of The Search – the database of intentions has expanded from search to nearly every corner of our world – we now live our lives leveraged over digital platforms and data. So what might that look like thirty years hence?

As the announcement last year stated:

WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now.

That’s a pretty tall order. At first, I spent a lot of time trying to boil any number of oceans – figuring out who to talk to in politics, energy, healthcare, technology, and, well, just about every major field. It quickly became quite evident that I’d end up with a book a thousand miles wide and one inch deep – unless I got very lucky and stumbled upon a perfect narrative actor that tied it all up into one neat story. Last time Google provided me that actor, but given I’m writing a book about how the world might look in 30 years, I’m not holding my breath waiting for another perfect protagonist to step out a time machine somewhere.

But what if those protagonists are already here? Allow me to explain…

For the past few months I’ve been stewing on how the hell to actually write this book I’ve promised everyone I would deliver. The manuscript is not actually due till early next year, but still, books take a lot of time. And every day that goes by without a clear framework is a day partially lost.

A couple of months ago, worried that I’d never figure this thing out (but knowing there had to be a way), I invited one of  my favorite authors (and new Marin resident) Steven Johnson over to my house for a brainstorming session. I outlined where I was in my thinking, and posed to him my essential problem: I was trying to do too much, and needed to focus my work on a narrative that paid off the promise, but didn’t read like a textbook, or worse yet, like a piece of futurism. As I said to Steven, “If I write a book that has a scene where an alarm clock wakes you up on a ‘typical morning in 2045,’ please shoot me.”

It’s not that I don’t appreciate futurism – it’s just that I truly believe, as William Gibson famously put it, that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. If I could just figure out a way to report on that future, to apply the tools of journalism to the story of the future we’re creating, I’d come up with a book worth reading. Of course, it was this approach we took in the early years of Wired magazine. Our job, as my colleague Kevin Kelly put it, was to send writers off in search of where the future was erupting, with instructions to report back.

To find that future, we asked our writers (and editors) to look hard at the present, and find people, places or things that augured what might come next. Hence, issue one of Wired had articles about the future of war, education, entertainment, and sex, based on reporting done in the here and now. While we didn’t call it such, over the years we developed an “If-Then” approach to many of the stories we’d assign. We’d think out loud: “If every school had access to the Internet, then what might change about education?” Or, “If the government had the ability to track everything we do both offline and on, then what might our society look like?” The conditional “If” question followed with a realistic “Then” answer provided a good way to wrap our heads around a sometimes challenging subject  (and for you programmers out there, we’d also consider the “ands” as well as the “elses.”)

Next, we’d ask a reporter to go find out all he or she could about that scenario – to go in search of artifacts from the future which told a story of where things might be going. (Wired, in fact, later created the popular “Found: Artifacts from the Future” series in the pages of the magazine.)

As an early reader and contributor to Wired, Steven knew all this, and reminded me of it as we spoke that day at my house. What if, he asked me, the book was framed as a series of stories about “future antiquities” or “future relics” (I think he first dubbed them “Magic Coins”)? Could we find examples of things currently extant, which, if widely adopted over the next generation, would presage significant changes in the world we’ll be inhabiting? Why, indeed, yes we could. Immediately I thought of five or six, and since that day, many more have come to mind.

Now, I think it bears unpacking this concept of what I mean by “widely adopted.” To me, it means clearing a pretty high hurdle – by 2045 or so, it’d mean that more than a billion people would be regularly interacting with whatever the future antiquity might be.  When you get a very large chunk of the population engaged in a particular behavior, that behavior has the ability to effect real change on our political, social, and cultural norms. Those are the kind of artifacts I’m looking to find.

As a thought experiment, imagine I had given myself this assignment back in the early 1980s, when I was just starting my love affair with this story as a technology reporter (yes, there’s a symmetry here – that’s 30 years ago – one generation past). Had I gone off in search of digital artifacts that presaged the future, ones that I believed might be adopted by a billion or more people, I certainly would have started with the personal computer, which at that point was counted in the high hundreds of thousands in the US. And I also would have picked the Internet, which was being used, at that point, by only thousands of people. I’d have described the power of these two artifacts in the present day, imagined how technological and social change might develop as more and more people used them, and spoken to the early adopters, entrepreneurs, and thinkers of the day about what would happen if a billion or more people were using them on a regular basis.

An antiquity from the 1980s, with its future descendant (image from machinelake.com)

Pushing the hypothetical a bit further, I imagine I’d find the Dan Bricklins, Vint Cerfs, Ray Ozzies, and Bill Gates of the day, and noticed that they hung out in universities, for the most part. I’d have noticed that they used their computers and online networks to communicate with each other, to share information, to search and discover things, and to create communities of interest. It was in those universities where the future was erupting 30 years ago, and had I been paying close attention, it’s plausible I might have declared email, search, and social networks – or at least “communities on the Internet” – as artifacts of our digital future. And of course, I’d have noticed the new gadget just released called the mobile phone, and probably declared that important as well. If more than a billion people had a mobile phone by 2012, I’d have wondered, then what might our world look like?

I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten a lot wrong, but the essential framework – a way to think about finding and declaring the erupting future – seems a worthy endeavor. So I’ve decided to focus my work on doing just that. It helps that it combines two of my favorite approaches to thinking – anthropology and journalism. In essence, I’m going on a dig for future antiquities.

So what might some of today’s artifacts from the future be? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list, but I do have a good start. And while the “If-Then” framework could work for all sorts of artifacts, I’m looking for those that “ladder up” to significant societal change. To that end, I’ve begun exploring innovations in energy, finance, health, transportation, communications, commerce – not surprisingly, all subjects to which we have devoted impressive stone buildings in our capital city. (Hence my trip to DC last week.)

Here’s one example that might bring the concept home: The Fitbit. At present, there are about half a million of them in the world, as far as I can tell (I’m meeting with the company soon). But Fitbit-like devices are on the rise – Nike launched its FuelBand earlier this year, for example. And while the first generation of these devices may only appeal to early adopters, with trends in miniaturization, processing power, and data platforms, it’s not hard to imagine a time when billions of us are quantifying our movement, caloric intake and output, sleep patterns, and more, then sharing that data across wide cohorts so as to draw upon the benefits of pattern-recognizing algorithms to help us make better choices about our behavior.

If that were to happen, what then might be the impact on our healthcare systems? Our agricultural practices and policies? Our insurance industries? Our life expectancies? I’m not entirely sure, but it’d sure be fun to try to answer such questions.

I won’t tip my hand as to my entire current list of Future Antiquities, but I certainly would welcome your ideas and input as to what they might be. I’d also like your input on the actual title of the book. “What We Hath Wrought” is a cool title, but perhaps it’s a bit….too heady. Some might even call it overwrought. What if I called the book “If-Then”? I’m thinking about doing just that. Let me know in comments, and as always, thanks for reading.

Architectures of Control: Harvard, Facebook, and the Chicago School

By - April 02, 2012

Early in Lessig’s “Code v2,” which at some point this week I hope to review in full, Lessig compares the early campus networks of two famous educational institutions. Lessig knew them well – in the mid 1990s, he taught at both Harvard and the University of Chicago. Like most universities, Harvard and Chicago provided Internet access to their students. But they took quite different approaches to doing so. True to its philosophy of free and anonymous speech, Chicago simply offered an open connection to its students – plug in anywhere on campus, and start using the net.

Harvard’s approach was the polar opposite, as Lessig explains:

At Harvard, the rules are different….You cannot plug your machine to the Net at Harvard unless the machine is registered – licensed, approved, verified. Only members of the university community can register their machines. Once registered, all interactions with the network are monitored and identified to a particular machine. To join the network, users have to “sign” a user agreement. The agreement acknowledges this pervasive practice of monitoring. Anonymous speech on this network is not permitted – it is against the rules. Acceess can be controlled based on who you are, and interactions can be traced based on what you did.

In the preceding paragraph, change “Harvard” and “university” to “Facebook” and – there you have it. Facebook was the product of a Harvard mindset – and probably could never have come from a place like Chicago or Berkeley (where I taught).

I called up Harvard’s IT department to see if the policy had changed since Lessig’s experiences in the 1990s, or Mark Zuckerbeg’s six or so years ago. The answer was no – machines still must be registered, and all actions across Harvard’s network are trackable.

There are many benefits associated with a “real names” identity policy, including personalized services and a far greater likelihood of civil discourse. But the reverse is also true: without the right to speak anonymously (or pseudonymously), dissent and exploration are often muted. And of course, there’s that tracking/monitoring/data issue as well…

In Code, Lessig goes on to predict that while the original Internet began with a very Chicago-like approach to the world, architectures of regulation and control will ultimately end up winning if we don’t pay close attention.

He wrote the original Code in 1999, and updated it in 2006. The word Facebook is not in either version of the text. Just thought that a curious anecdote worth sharing.